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Lee's Retreat From Gettysburg, 1863
Lee's second invasion of the North was a gamble - a gamble he lost with his defeat at Gettysburg in early July 1863. On the battle's third and final day, (July 3) Lee attempted to break the Union's lines with a massive attack led by General George Pickett aimed at the enemy's center.

Raked by devastating cannon and rifle fire, the Confederate assault sputtered and died just as it reached the Union lines. Thousands died, many more were wounded. A reporter observed: "The (Confederate) lines have disappeared like a straw in a candle's flame. The ground is thick with the dead, and the wounded are like the withered leaves of autumn. Thousands of rebels throw down their arms and give themselves up as prisoners."

It was a disaster, forcing Lee to begin a retreat towards the Potomac River and Virginia the following day.

Lee's Remorse

Confederate General John Imboden commanded a cavalry brigade that arrived at Gettysburg on the afternoon of July 3 - too late to take part in the battle. That evening, General Lee ordered Imboden to wait at his headquarters where he would receive further instructions. We join General Imboden's story in the early morning hours of July fourth as he and his staff await the arrival of General Lee:

"When he arrived there was not even a sentinel on duty at his tent, and no one of his staff was awake. The moon was high in the clear sky and the silent scene was unusually vivid. As he approached and saw us lying on the grass under a tree, he spoke, reined in his jaded horse, and essayed to dismount. The effort to do so betrayed so much physical exhaustion that I hurriedly rose and stepped forward to assist him, but before I reached his side he had succeeded in alighting, and threw his arm across the saddle to rest, and fixing his eyes upon the ground leaned in silence and almost motionless upon his equally weary horse, - the two forming a striking and never-to-be-forgotten group. The moon shone full upon his massive features and revealed an expression of sadness that I had never before seen upon his face. Awed by his appearance I waited for him to speak until the silence became embarrassing, when, to break it and change the silent current of his thoughts, I ventured to remark, in a sympathetic tone, and in allusion to his great fatigue:

'General, this has been a hard day on you.'

He looked up, and replied mournfully: 'Yes, it has been a sad, sad day to us,' and immediately relapsed into his thoughtful mood and attitude. Being unwilling again to intrude upon his reflections, I said no more. After perhaps a minute or two, he suddenly straightened up to his full height, and turning to me with more animation and excitement of manner than I had ever seen in him before, for he was a man of wonderful equanimity, he said in a voice tremulous with emotion: 'I never saw troops behave more magnificently than Picket's division of Virginians did today in that grand charge upon the enemy. And if they had been supported as they were to have been, - but, for some reason - not yet fully explained to me, were not, - we would have held the position and the day would have been ours.' After a moment's pause he added in a loud voice, in a tone almost of agony, 'Too bad! Too bad! OH ! TOO BAD!'"

Mournful Trek

Lee orders General Imboden and his brigade of cavalry to protect the retreating train of Confederate wounded as it retreats back across the Potomac River into Virginia. The column moves out at four o'clock in the afternoon and stretches for miles. Wagons carry the severely injured while the walking wounded straggle behind. The column makes its way west through the Pennsylvania mountains. We rejoin General Imboden's story the evening of July 4:

"After dark I set out from Cashtown to gain the head of the column during the night. My orders had been peremptory that there should be no halt for any cause whatever. If an accident should happen to any vehicle, it was immediately to be put out of the road and abandoned. The column moved rapidly, considering the rough roads and the darkness, and from almost every wagon for many miles issued heart-rending wails of agony. For four hours I hurried forward on my way to the front, and in all that time I was never out of hearing of the groans and cries of the wounded and dying. Scarcely one in a hundred had received adequate surgical aid, owing to the demands on the hard-working surgeons from still worse cases that had to be left behind. Many of the wounded in the wagons had been without food for thirty-six hours. Their torn and bloody clothing, matted and hardened, was rasping the tender, inflamed, and still oozing wounds. Very few of the wagons had even a layer of straw in them, and all were without springs. The road was rough and rocky from the heavy washings of the preceding day. The jolting was enough to have killed strong men, if long exposed to it. From nearly every wagon as the teams trotted on, urged by whip and shout, came such cries and shrieks as these:

'O God I why can't I die!'

'My God I will no one have mercy and kill me!'

'Stop! Oh! For God's sake, stop just for one minute; take me out and leave me to die on the roadside.'

'I am dying! I am dying! My poor wife, my dear children, what will become of you?'

Some were simply moaning; some were praying, and others uttering the most fearful oaths and execrations that despair and agony could wring from them; while a majority, with a stoicism sustained by sublime devotion to the cause they fought for, endured without complaint unspeakable tortures, and even spoke words of cheer and comfort to their unhappy comrades of less will or more acute nerves. Occasionally a wagon would be passed from which only low, deep moans could be heard. No help could be rendered to any of the sufferers. No heed could be given to any of their appeals. Mercy and duty to the many forbade the loss of a moment in the vain effort then and there to comply with the prayers of the few. On I On I we must move on. The storm continued, and the darkness was appalling. There was no time even to fill a canteen with water for a dying man; for, except the drivers and the guards, all were wounded and utterly helpless in that vast procession of misery. During this one night I realized more of the horrors of war than I had in all the two preceding years."

Desperate Battle

Harassed by Union cavalry and pelted by driving rain that turned the ground into a quagmire of mud, the retreating column reached the town of Williamsport on the afternoon of July 5th. Occupying the town, General Imboden turns it into a giant hospital, ordering the citizens to cook for the wounded. The following day Union cavalry attacked the town in strength:

"The enemy appeared in our front about half-past one o'clock on both the Hagerstown and Boonsboro roads, and the fight began. Every man under my command understood that if we did not repulse the enemy we should all be captured and General Lee's army be ruined by the loss of its transportation, which at that period could not have been replaced in the Confederacy. The fight began with artillery on both sides. The firing from our side was very rapid, and seemed to make the enemy hesitate about advancing. In a half hour J. D. Moore's battery ran out of ammunition, but as an ordnance train had arrived from Winchester, two wagon-loads of ammunition were ferried across the river and run upon the field behind the guns, and the boxes tumbled out, to be broken open with axes. With this fresh supply our guns were all soon in full play again.

...Night was now rapidly approaching, when a messenger from Fitzhugh Lee arrived to urge me to 'hold my own,' as he would be up in a half hour with three thousand fresh men. The news was sent along our whole line, and was received with a wild and exultant yell. We knew then that the field was won, and slowly pressed forward. Almost at the same moment we heard distant guns on the enemy's rear and right on the Hagerstown road. They were Stuart's, who was approaching on that road, while Fitzhugh Lee was coming on the Greencastle road. That settled the contest."

   Foote, Shelby, Stars in Their Courses : The Gettysburg Campaign June-July 1863; Imboden, John "The Confederate Retreat From Gettysburg" in Buel, Clarence, and Robert U. Johnson, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. IV (1888, reprinted 1982); Wheeler Richard, Voices of the Civil War (1990).

How To Cite This Article:
"Lee's Retreat From Gettysburg, 1863" EyeWitness to History, (2002).

After his defeat at Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee submitted his resignation as commander of the Confederate Army. President Jefferson Davis refused to accept it.
President Lincoln criticized Union commander, General George Meade, for not vigorously pursuing the retreating Confederate army and destroying it.
The rain-swollen Potomac prevented Lee's crossing into Virginia until July 13.